Book Review: Yusef Salaam's Punching The Air

Fully exonerated
-A +A
Yusef Salaam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Punching the Air, By Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam, of the exonerated five.
Copyright 2020
Balzer+Bray, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
Pages 386.
Review by Ebele Oseye
“Hate put me in prison, love is gonna bust me out.”  Ruben “Hurricane” Carter.
This brilliant novel, Punching the Air, delivering so much beauty and truth, could not have come at a better time. This book brings us to higher consciousness as society feels imprisoned, imprisoned by quarantine and imprisoned by hate. Those who saw the insightful document, “The Central Park Five” will see even more in this novel, the story of Amal Shahid, artist, 16 years old and suddenly, imprisoned for a crime which he did not commit.
The format of the book, in verse form, allows for unmistakable truths to be presented on each page, enlightening the reader, making it almost impossible for anyone to read in a distracted, unfocused manner.  The Thirteenth  Amendment, framed and placed on a single page, in a single sentence abolished American slavery and in the same sentence reinstated slavery through the prison system.  The reader can’t miss the massage.
Early in the narrative we see a tattoo of an African American baby on the arm of a white police officer.  The baby has a noose around his neck. Conspicuously the racist officer’s mind is imbalanced, his  intentions are immoral. And several poems entitled “Conversations with God” will direct us to carefully examine our religions. Sometimes it is difficult to detect any presence of the Divine in these poems. The “good” psychiatrist who is supposed to be “helping” the incarcerated youth asks so many negative questions that the poem ends with Amal wondering if all those questions regarding self-harm are in fact suggestions that he harm himself or even end his life.
From ancient stories we learn that beauty and terror coexist: what is beautiful can come from what appears to be obnoxious filth. But we also learn from the ancients not to glorify the filth. This book is amazing, informing us, directing us to larger truths. Is our educational system designed to send African American children from the school yard to the prison yard?  The co-author Ibi Zoboi of Haiti bring a maternal presence and balance to the narrative.
The beauty of Punching the Air begins on the cover, with the embossed hair and the embossed edges of the fist and the sweep of colors.  This cover attracted a young man who saw his own face and contemporary hairstyle and asked me where I purchased the book, stating that he wanted to buy the book.  That Invisible Man that Ralph Ellison wrote about, is now visible. And that visible man is creative, as indicated by the sweep of colors. The meaning of the protagonist’s first name, Amal, which means hop echoes Rev. Jesse Jackson’s  “Keep hope alive.” 
What an inspiration that  four young men and a friend endured a brutal incarceration experience and somehow survived. Former President Barack Obama writes  about The Audacity of Hope. In 2016 President Obama honored Yusef Salaam with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
The power of love, love of family, brotherhood, permeates the book. The capacity for compassion, triumphs.  The critical thinking can engage the university student, and inform the younger teen. there is much to respect. Street language and academic language hold equal value in this book. Titles of poems are wonderful devices for bringing clarity of thought that instantly connects readers, young and older. In a bit more than a single page, the authors are able to articulate what might take other writers a full chapter of many pages.
What is the role of education as it relates to freedom?  What is the relationship between power and art? This book delivers so much beauty, so much truth, so much love. From the dedication page to the author’s comment there is so much to learn and to enjoy, there is so much love in this timely novel, Punching the Air.
Prof. Oseye, author of Let The Lion Eat Straw, teaches Literature of African Peoples at Pace University.

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